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Fratricide: New Atheists vs. Framing Atheists

Michael Egnor

As of late there has been a lot of spittle passed between two camps in the Darwin-sphere. Things are getting really nasty, as so often happens among atheist factions.
On one side are the new atheists: Coyne, Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, Myers.
On the other side are the … well for want of a better word — the “framing” atheists: Ruse, Mooney, Kirshenbaum, Nisbet, Scott.
With the exception of a few theist Darwinians (an oxymoron, I know) like Ken Miller, the motivation of the combatants seems to be the same: how to best advance an atheist-Darwinian understanding of man and nature. The factions differ on tactics.
The new atheists advocate militancy. They believe:

1) The scientific method is the proper tool for acquiring all knowledge. (Which is self-contradictory, because this positivist assertion is itself a philosophical, not a scientific, inference.)
2) Science, properly understood, proves atheism true (which is, of course, nonsense. The obvious and inescapable inference to formal and final causation in nature — the governance of nature — implies the primacy of a Mind that transcends the natural world).
3) Religion is a scourge on mankind (actually, men have been always and everywhere disposed to evil. The most radical evil known to man has been atheism in power — cf the Reign of Terror, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung, etc…).
4) Totalitarian methods, such as denial of positions of leadership based on religious beliefs (e.g. Francis Collins) and expulsion of skeptics (e.g. Expelled), are necessary to advance atheism, particularly in science.
The framing atheists advocate tactical savvy. They believe:
1) The scientific method cannot be applied to non-scientific domains of inquiry.
2) Atheism and Darwinism are true for philosophical reasons, but science is best conducted without explicit reference to metaphysics.
3) The impact of religion on mankind is mixed, and it is imperative to preserve the good (Christian ethics) and exclude the bad (creationism).
4) Totalitarian methods, which are inherent to atheism-in-practice, should be eschewed, for tactical as well as (perhaps) moral reasons.
It’ll be interesting to see how the struggle between the new atheists and the framing atheists works itself out. I have no doubt that the new atheist approach is of considerable help to the ID movement. New atheism is an amalgam of all that is odious about atheism: self-aggrandizing arrogance, ignorance of even the rudiments of philosophy or theology or history, and the inexorable recourse to censorship, professional destruction, and other totalitarian methods. The only way in which the new atheists make the theist job harder in this debate is that the new atheists are so radically explicit that they’re difficult to satirize.
Framing atheists are much more difficult to deal with. They are less likely to be practicing scientists, but they are much savvier about the effective advancement of their ideology. The only way that atheism can advance is if it is implicit in cultural change, not explicit. That is why Darwinism has been atheism’s most powerful engine, bar none. The assertion that there is no God and therefore no teleology in nature is, to thoughtful men, transparent nonsense; it can only be advanced by cloaking it in ‘science’ — ill-defined concepts such as ‘evolution’ serve nicely, and have been remarkably effective.
Framing atheists understand this. Philosopher Michael Ruse is a likeable fellow, but his muddled thinking on the ID-Darwinism debate is no more correct or even coherent than that of his feral new atheist interlocutors. But Ruse does have the sense to see that Darwinism fails when it is marketed as a totalitarian religion, and that the only way to advance Darwinian atheism and materialism in our culture is to be less than explicit about its (quite obvious) characteristics and implications. Chris Mooney, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Matt Nisbet, and Eugenie Scott understand the marketing tactics needed to advance the atheist world-view as well. I suspect that their critique of the new atheists has little to do with principle; if new atheism were clearly successful in advancing its agenda, the framers would be quietly enjoying atheism’s growing ideological hegemony, and would raise no objections at all to its ugly tactics. But the framers see the iceberg approaching, and they realize that atheism will fail if it is explicit and tries to advance using the totalitarian methods inherent to it.
New atheists’ candor has forced framing atheists to do salvage work. But what framing atheists need to ask themselves is this: is atheism worth saving? Perhaps the foundation of existence is a Mind, and not mere matter.
Perhaps teleology in nature is real.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.